BOOKS: American Nature Writing 1996 & The Soul of Nature

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July 1996:

American Nature Writing 1996
selected by John A. Murray.
Sierra Club Books (730 Polk St., San Francisco, CA 94109), 1996.
300 pages. $15.00 paperback.

The Soul of Nature: Celebrating the Spirit of the Earth
edited by Michael Tobias and Georgianne Cowan.
Penguin Books (375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014), 1996.
298 pages. $11.95 paperback.

A collection of 29 short features,
including a few poems, American Nature
Writing celebrates “the best American nature
writing” of the year. Contributors to this edition
include Jimmy Carter, E.O. Wilson,
Jennifer Ackerman, Frank Stewart, and Barry
Lopez, but the reputations of the authors
exceed the quality of the content. More sentimental
than either passionate or insightful,
American Nature Writing reads rather like a
Reader’s Digest anthology—condensed,
somewhat chirpy, a little bland.

The Soul of Nature avoids blandness
by dwelling heavily on the spiritual aspects of
nature, ecology, conservation etc. Including
essays by Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard,
Matthew Fox, Thich Nhat Hanh, Petra Kelly,
and Tom Hayden, among others, this collection
reads like a revival meeting plays: heavy
on shaming and blaming, exhorting us to
revere a concept of deity many of us can’t
begin to understand. It’s like nagging a twopack-a-day
smoker to quit smoking by yelling,
“Do you know what it’s doing to your lungs!?”
The smoker knows, but is guiltily hooked; the
average consumer knows, but perceives himself
as guiltily dependent on all those lovely
goods and services.
Constantly telling us that rich,
white, shallow, patriarchal, consumer-oriented,
resource-voracious, money-grubbing
western society is the bane of the universe
doesn’t entice us down any different road.
And urging us to embrace exotic religious or
arcane spiritual models, foreign to our culture
and everyday reality, is hardly a prescription
for solving our environmental ills.

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